Listen to your father when he says get a lawyer. A 19-year-old accused of murder in the stabbing of a Sacramento pastor surrendered on his father’s advice and before being Mirandized told police, “my dad asked me to ask you guys… uh, give me a lawyer.”
They didn’t. Tio Sessoms was eventually convicted of murder but on Thursday that conviction was overturned by an 11-judge 9th Circuit Court of Appeal panel, voting 6-5.
The divided panel also set a new standard for police questioning if a suspect requests a lawyer even before getting the Miranda warning.
Sessoms had been sentenced to life in prison without parole but the appellate decision gives him the right to a new trial.
The appeals court took exception to the police tactic of telling Sessoms that waiting for a lawyer was a bad idea and continued to question him. Police advised him of his right to remain silent and have a lawyer as required in the Miranda warning, but only after Sessoms told them he wanted one. Sessoms then admitted he took part in the 1999 home burglary.
Sessoms told police that Frederick Clark stabbed the pastor. Clark was not involved in the Sessoms’ appeal. He was also serving a life-without-parole term.
Sessoms and Clark broke into Edward Sheriff’s home and one of the trial chooked and repeatedly stabbed Sheriff, according to the court.
The victim was a prominent gay pastor who ran a food bank in one of Sacramento’s poorest neighborhoods, according to press accounts at the time. He was 68 and lived in a mobile home. Two attackers were seen leaving the mobile home park with the minister’s two autos, a pickup truck and Lincoln Town car, according to media accounts.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said that a suspect must “unambiguously request counsel” before police are required to stop questioning. But in this case Sessoms’s request came even before he was read his rights under Miranda.
Judge Betty Fletcher wrote that when a suspect invokes his rights before the Miranda warning is given it must be analyzed under the less strenuous terms of the “unambiguous” request standard the Supreme Court has set.
“Sessoms requested an attorney before receiving a clear and complete statement of his rights and, therefore, knowledge of his rights cannot be ascribed to him,” she wrote.
Sessoms’ request “easily met the standard” of asking for a lawyer, she said.
In dissent, Judge Mary Murguia argued that the Supreme Court never set out two different standards for requesting a lawyer before and after receiving a Miranda warning.
Murguia, a recent appointee to the court by President Obama, said the state court reasonably concluded “that Sessoms’s statement was not an unambiguous request for counsel.” She would uphold the conviction.
Joining Murguia in dissent were Judges Consuelo Callahan, Sandra Ikuta, Barry Silverman and Chief Judge Alex Kozinski.
The majority included Fletcher, Judges Mary Schroeder, Kim Wardlaw, Raymond Fisher, Richard Paez and Milan Smith Jr.
Case: Sessoms v. Runnels, No. 08-17790